Thursday, November 10, 2005

At life's noose

In the Sunday Express, Shashi Warrier's chilling yet sensitive account of the scene inside a gibbet. For both sides on the death penalty debate, this article (and Warrier's Hangman's Journal) must be compulsory reading. In the vortex of arguments, finger-pointing, name-calling, facts and figures, the real human story of crime, guilt, redemption and the limits of one's conscience gets lost and the issue of capital punishment gets mired in intellectual-ese. But Warrier takes no sides. He asks simple yet searingly painful and complex questions, and brings you to question your assumptions:

I participate in debates on the death penalty. In the context of modern-day terrorism, I tend to argue for the death penalty. The hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar comes to mind always. The argument for the death penalty runs thus: Imagine if one of the militants released in exchange for the hostages returns to kill another few innocents. What can we say to those bereaved? If we had executed the terrorists we had to release, we wouldn’t have had to face this question at all.
The counter runs thus: Each time you execute a terrorist, you create a martyr who inspires a hundred others. How would you face those bereaved by these hundred others?
There are other arguments, of course, and counter-arguments. The debate rages on. Every time I think of it, though, my mind returns to Murugan. Eventually, I ask myself this: If I had to put a noose around Murugan’s neck and pull the lever on the trapdoor beneath the gibbet to execute him, would I be able to do it? The answer comes with surprising ease: No, I wouldn’t. What if he killed someone dear to me? Many people dear to me? This time the answer comes slowly, and with difficulty, but it’s the same: No, I wouldn’t.
And I wonder, if Janardhanan Pillai thought about it and had to do it over again, would he? I think I hear his ghost answer: ‘‘No, I wouldn’t!’’


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